How to Identify Chords on Sheet Music

Chords in music are a lot like people. They come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and characteristics.

Once we know someone well, we can usually recognize them at first sight and even sometimes as they are walking away without even seeing their face!

This lesson is going to help you learn how to identify many of the different types of chords that you will learn in your piano playing in much the same way.

Once you can identify a specific type of chord by sight, you'll be able to play them faster in your piano music. At a certain point, you won't even need to think about it; you'll just automatically know what the chord is as soon as you look at it. Much like recognizing your best friend walking down the street!

Before we get started, make sure that you are familiar somewhat with the different types of chords (even if you don't know what they look like in your music) and I include a playlist in the video portion of this lesson that will take you to several videos that focus solely on learning chords that will help refresh your memory.

Now let's look at some of the different types of triads and chords that we have in piano music...we'll start at the root of them all.

Step 1: Root Position Triads

A Root Position Triad is one that we see often in our music and you can think of it as the root of all other chords.

They are easy to identify because the notes (all 3 of them) will be evenly stacked on top of each other; this is true no matter whether the notes are on spaces are on lines. (images 2 & 3)

When a chord is in root position we know that the name of the chord is the bottom note. In the 2nd image, our chord starts on the note F, so it is an F chord. In the 3rd image, the chord starts on a G, so we're playing a G chord in this instance.

Now we can take this chord and change it. Let's see how we do that and what it is called, next.

Step 2: 1st Inversion Triads

When we change a chord from the root position, we call it an inversion. This simply means that we are moving the notes around to be in a different order than the original root position.

There are different inversions for each chord.

The 1st inversion triad is where we move the bottom note to the top. The 2nd image shows the G on the top now instead of the bottom.

Notice how it doesn't look like a triad any longer because the notes aren't evenly stacked on top of one another?

1st inversion chords are pretty easy to identify because the bottom 2 notes will be evenly stacked but there will be a larger distance between the middle and the top note that there was in the root position.

The name of the chord will be on the top instead of the bottom for 1st inversion triads.

Next, we're going to take this same G chord and change it even more. Instead of a 1st inversion triad, we're going to have...(next step!)

Step 3: 2nd Inversion Triads

We're going up in order here...now we have a 2nd inversion triad.

If we moved the bottom note to the top to create a 1st inversion triad, what do you think we would move around this time for a 2nd inversion triad? Just repeat what you did before.

Move the bottom 2 notes to the top this time - and you have a 2nd inversion triad.

We move the G and the B to the very top and now we have D as our bottom note. Notice that in the 2nd inversion, the larger space between notes occurs between the bottom 2 notes, not the top 2 notes as we had in the 1st inversion triad.

This makes 2nd inversions unique and easily recognizable from 1st inversion triads. This also tells you that the name of the chord will be in the middle this time.

An important aspect of playing these different types of triads correctly is knowing what key they are in so we know whether to play sharps, flats or naturals. This means that we need to know the difference between major and minor chords.

Let's review that in the next step.

Step 4: Review of Major & Minor Chords

It is sometimes easy enough to recognize whether a chord is major or minor by how it sounds. Minor keys/chords usually have a sad sound to them and major keys/chords usually have more of a bold and happy sound to them.

We can also count the 1/2 steps between the notes in the chord to find out which mode it is in.

If you can count four 1/2 steps between the bottom note/the root and the 2nd note, and the top note is seven 1/2 steps from the bottom note, then it is a major triad. (2nd image)

Minor Triads are different in that the middle note of the chord is lowered by one 1/2 step. (3rd image)

This will also change the number of 1/2 steps between the bottom and middle note: now we only have three 1/2 steps instead of 4.

The last thing we want to go over is when we find chords that are split between our 2 hands or between the 2 different clefs that we play in at the piano.

Step 5: Chords Split Between Voices

A chord does not always have to be played in just one clef or with just one hand.

It may look a little like another language when you first see chords split between voices like this, but once you see a few of them they are pretty easy to decipher. (2nd image)

The easiest way to figure out what a chord is when it is written like this in our music is by starting at the very bottom/bass note. In this case, it is C. (3rd image)

Since we now know that we have a C chord, we want to move the very top note, G, down to the bass clef and we find that it fits perfectly in the middle, creating a root position triad. (4th & 5th images)

This is just where we began...root position triads. The root chords are the beginning of all other chord varieties/inversions that we encounter in piano music.

Roots, 1st inversions, 2nd inversions, chords split between clefs...all of these we are going to go over more in depth in the final step. Let's get to the piano so we can practice each of these together.

Step 6: Come Practice With Me!

This video portion of the lesson will let you play each type of chord on the piano while you read it in music, and with me.

I go through a lot more examples of each type of chord and even test you on some different ones to help you understand, even more, the differences between each of them.

Don't forget to check out the playlist that I mention at the beginning of the video that will give you some free resources that go over the basics of chords, triads, and other things that will help reinforce your knowledge of chords, overall.

You don't need any music right now to practice with me, but once you feel you've mastered this lesson, start looking at other music you have in your studio and see how easy it has become to identify most of the chords you see written down!

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